If you’re experiencing persistent neck pain, you’re in good company. It’s estimated that about 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience neck pain lasting for one year or longer. If you’re between the ages of 35-49 and living in a city the United States or another higher income country, your risk of being one of those 1 in 4 people goes up significantly, according to the statistics. 1 If you work in front of a computer or in an office setting, the likelihood is even higher still. If you consider that the use of smartphone and computers has only increased since these stats were collected, which very likely will increase the frequency of neck pain, you’ll get some idea of how common neck pain is and how easy it is becoming to develop it.
Persistent neck pain can be a heck of a hurdle to all sorts of things in life. Besides the obvious fact that it causes pain and can make life considerably less comfortable day to day, it can be expensive both in terms of money and other less tangible things like lost sleep, lost productivity, irritability, inability to spend time as much time playing with the kids, less motivation for other leisure time activities, etc. Money is easier to measure, however, and a 2009 analysis of the economic burden of chronic neck pain places the annual cost between $5574-8512 per year. 2 If chronic neck pain requires surgery, those costs can jump significantly with a 2010 analysis of spinal surgery finding that the average cost of spinal surgery is approximately $120,394. 3 Sometimes surgery is unavoidable, but in a significant number of cases it most definitely is. Acupuncture is an effective means to control, reduce, or eliminate chronic neck pain and it can help to restore the health of the affected tissues of the neck that could otherwise eventually make surgery inevitable.
It’s important to also understand that neck problems do not just affect the neck itself, but can be implicated in the development of numerous other issues producing pain and dysfunction in surrounding and connected areas. That carpal tunnel issue may not simply be due to spending too much time at the computer at work, and that pain between your shoulder blades might need more than just a massage. These issues will be visited in the linked posts below. The neck is a crucial area of nerve and muscular activity, and mobility, and any dysfunction in these areas can often result in more than just a stiff neck.
There are several ways in which the tissues of the neck can be impacted by various conditions and there are specific ways in which acupuncture can address each situation. I will be covering some of the details of these particular scenarios and how acupuncture can help each of them in upcoming blog posts, which you can click through to below. (When they are complete. The links may be broken for a few weeks after the publication date of this blog. Stay tuned!)
Acupuncture and Neck Pain – Structure
Acupuncture and Neck Pain – Muscles
Acupuncture and Neck Pain – Nerves
Acupuncture and Neck Pain – Mobility
Acupuncture and Neck Pain – Alternative to Conventional Care
As with anything, the specificity can make all of the difference and you will probably not be surprised to learn that there are specialized techniques to approach the unique qualities of each condition. However, in addition to specialized techniques to address the immediate problem areas, skillfully performed acupuncture harnesses and directs the body’s innate healing capacity, leveraging it in your favor in order to speed the healing process. This translates to reduced pain and inflammation in the short term, and more complete healing with fewer complications in the long term.
Other than surgery, which has been discussed above, standard care for neck pain can typically involve PT and anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, or in some cases pain medication. One of the reasons that acupuncture is so effective for neck pain is that it can accomplish the tasks of all of these interventions with one therapeutic approach. Correctly performed acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the release of enkephalins, endorphins, and other neuropeptides both in the affected tissues and in the entire body. These function to reduce inflammation and pain without the need for pharmaceuticals with the risk of side-effects. The needles can additionally improve blood flow to the affected areas and facilitate relaxation in the affected muscles by improving the communication between the muscle and the nervous system, again, without the need for pharmaceuticals. While PT is also a non-pharmaceutical intervention, many patients find that they still have pain even after a round of visits and in these cases acupuncture can serve as an excellent complement to the structurally-based rehab that PT provides.
On this last note, acupuncture can assist and improve the outcome of any of the other primary “Western” interventions used to treat neck pain – speeding recovery and assisting the durability of recovery to prevent recurrence. I have covered acupuncture’s complementary role to other therapies in a previous blog post.
An additional note on studies demonstrating effectiveness, the most recent Cochrane review (regarded as the highest quality evidence for medical interventions) on acupuncture for specifically for neck pain is quite favorable yet still somewhat inconclusive 4 (the current issues with executing a well-designed acupuncture study are numerous and beyond the scope of this post), however, as a clinician, chronic neck pain is among the top five ailments that I treat regularly and one that generates some of the most referrals from satisfied patients.
To sum it all up, neck pain is an incredibly common, costly issue that can significantly impact quality of life… but before you consider an irreversible surgery, before you get frustrated with the sometimes slow pace of rehab, and ESPECIALLY before you resort to opioid painkillers, why not join the millions of patients who have successfully found relief with acupuncture.
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